As organised crime continues to dominate local politics, the contrast between rhetoric and reality in Mexico is exposed
In February, Time magazine dedicated a cover feature to President Enrique Peña Nieto under the headline Saving Mexico. In June, his tour of Europe saw his wife’s chic wardrobe garner international fans. He returned home from a trip to New York in September clutching a prize as World Statesman 2014.
Fast forward just a few weeks to find the White House spokesman, the European parliament and the United Nations high commissioner for human rights all expressing concern about the situation in Mexico. With news from the country dominated by the disappearance of 43 students after they were arrested by police, the pope recently led a gathering in the Vatican in a prayer for the suffering Mexican people.
“Peña Nieto has got not just one black eye but two,” said George Grayson, a Mexico expert at the College of William & Mary in Virginia. The disappearance of the students has sparked large and peaceful marches, as well as firebombings of government buildings: “There are just some things you can’t explain away,” Grayson said.
Peña Nieto took office in December 2012 and immediately launched an ambitious reform programme designed to bury the drug wars that had dominated the news during the administration of his predecessor, Felipe Calderón, whose military-led offensive against organised crime had dramatically backfired.
The speed, breadth and depth of the programme – from education to energy – persuaded many in the international community that Peña Nieto was not just a pretty face backed by the formidable public relations machine of the historically semi-authoritarian Institutional Revolutionary party that had governed the country from 1929 to 2000. Mexico, the word spread, was on a new, forward-looking track towards economic modernisation.
The idea of the so-called Mexican Moment, however, never had anything like the same traction at home.
Peña Nieto’s approval ratings dropped as the economy languished. And though official homicide figures have fallen, obvious breakdowns in governability in several states have meant that security issues could never be swept completely under the carpet.
Then on 26 September, student teachers in the southern city of Iguala in the state of Guerrero were attacked by police and local drug cartel members.
Six people were killed and 43 are still missing. Mexico’s attorney general has alleged that the local mayor – who is now on the run – ordered the attacks and that the mayor’s wife is linked with a criminal group called Guerreros Unidos. The attorney general has since ordered the arrest of the mayor, his wife and the town’s chief of police.
“It was just too big and too blatant,” said Grayson. “There is not enough whitewash in the world to cover this.”
For a week the government left responsibility for the investigation in the hands of the notoriously corrupt Guerrero authorities, who happen to come from another political party – the leftwing party of Democratic Revolution.
The disappearance of the students had exposed the intermingling of local politics and organised crime that prevails in several parts of Mexico. In turn the federal government could not avoid the spotlight on its failure to act, despite boasting of bringing new levels of coordination and intelligence to the security strategy.
“Federal and local governments are no longer competing against each other, but are working in tandem to fight crime,” Peña Nieto had said in a Washington Post interview published the day before the attacks on the students, which took place a few minutes from an army base and the local headquarters of the Federal Police.
The biggest problem facing Peña Nieto today is justifying his government’s failure to find the students, who all came from the Ayotzinapa teacher training college, which has a long history of radical activism and has been repressed in the past. Over the past month the authorities have pulled dozens of bodies from mass graves in the Iguala area, but none have been identified as any of the students, for whom becoming rural teachers is usually their only option for advancement.
Some argue that the authorities must know where they are – given the arrest of 56 people allegedly involved in the events – but are protecting some person or institution deemed untouchable.
Alejandro Hope, a security expert and former official in the Mexican intelligence agency, suggested the detainees may be scapegoats, and that the government is genuinely in the dark. This, he stressed, would be the worst possible scenario for the government.
“They could weather the storm of finding the bodies, but this image of incompetence is devastating for them,” he said. “All of Peña Nieto’s image is constructed around the idea of being effective and on the idea that a government has returned that knows how to get things done.”
Meanwhile, efforts to keep the president somewhat above the fray have also broken down.
With his near daily statements promising future justice wearing thin, Peña Nieto finally met the parents of the disappeared last week. But the meeting turned into a five-hour marathon and the parents told a packed press conference of their frustration at not enough being done to find their children.
“I am filled up with anger because I thought this government was supposed to be effective,” Emiliano Navarette said. “I did not come here to ask for a favour. I came here to demand results as a Mexican citizen who demands that his government should not act this way.”
But while there is a chance that the crisis could develop into a watershed moment for Mexico, if the protests continue to grow and coalesce around a wider agenda, such as the need to genuinely deal with the intermingling of organised crime and politics, this is by no means a given.
“For years there has been a rejection of the political class as corrupt and unresponsive. The critical mass is there, but there is an organisational problem,” said Federico Estevez, a political scientist from the Mexico-based ITAM university. “Why? Because the political parties have kept everybody else out of the game.”
In this context, he suggested, Peña Nieto could begin to get the crisis under control, particularly if recent claims in the press alleginga link between the students and a criminal organisation take hold.
“It doesn’t get the Mexican Moment back, but it might undercut this perception that the government is up against the wall,” he said.